Recently, there has been a rapid rise in the number of studies examining how science affects the emotional lives of learners, and how it interacts with their cultural and personal beliefs. In the case of evolution, these factors can create negative feelings and stressors that work against students making the shift to accepting evolutionary theory.
For example, Sarah Brem and her colleagues asked students about their perceptions of the “consequences” of believing in evolution. Would accepting evolutionary theory cause people to become more or less racist, selfish, and purposeful? Would it cause them to believe more or less in spirituality and self-determination? We were surprised to find that, whether a student personally accepted evolutionary theory or not, they had very similar, and rather negative, beliefs regarding these issues. Although evolution does not actually provide an answer to these questions, both groups thought that believing in evolution would make someone more racist and selfish, less able to hold spiritual beliefs, and reduce their sense of purpose and self-determination. Even more surprising, in a follow-up study with high school biology teachers, Sarah and her colleagues found that even teachers worried about such matters, and some experienced significant levels of clinically defined stress just thinking about teaching evolution.
Psychologist Lisa Linnenbrink-Garcia and her colleagues have been looking at the effects of emotion and motivation on people's ability to learn about evolution. Their findings suggest that being mastery-oriented toward the material--wanting to learn about evolution for the sake of learning, without strong concerns about performance or the rewards they would receive for learning--seemed to be conducive to conceptual change. In addition, people's sense of self and their identity seem to be part of the picture. Students who see themselves as scientists are more open to learning about evolution than those who do not.